Joy and Saba, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Joy, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
JOY: TURNING is about 17 yo Genie’s choices. The good, bad and everything in between choices she made to become who she is, and how such decisions affected everyone in her life. There’s romance, friendship and family woes, but most of all, there’s ballet.
Strangely I started this story because I was burned out on another story I was working on. It wasn’t something I was actively thinking about. It just so happened that I love ballet and I love being a black girl, so the two smooshed together. Before any words were written I had this vision of this lovely black girl at the barre, and then I thought “what if she couldn’t dance anymore?” From there, the story became more. Everyone has this idea of how they see themselves or define themselves. This is Genie’s story—it’s about how she navigates wanting to be known for who she is and fighting to get what she wants after a career altering injury, which is challenging since dancing isn’t on the cards anymore.
Saba, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
SABA: The first time I read it, I devoured Joy’s manuscript because her voice is *incredible*. It’s easy to fall into, yet full of pathos; heartwrenching, yet full of humor and wit; intelligent, yet full of sass. She writes her characters with this wonderful combination of love and cruelty, and I was just floored by her raw talent. (She was still in college at the time, WHAAAT?) But the thing that absolutely sealed the deal for me was how much care she took into implementing my notes for her revision. She really engaged with my suggestions, and approached her manuscript with a maturity and understanding of plotting, characterization, and scene dynamics that I was, quite frankly, not expecting. I was floored, and I knew a third into reading the revision that I wanted, I needed, to work with her.
Joy, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
JOY: I started this right before my senior year of college the summer of ‘16 and finished the first draft by December ‘16. I knew I wanted to eventually query it but I wasn’t in a big hurry with deadlines to get it out there. I used critique partners and beta readers who encouraged me to send the story out. Without their help I wouldn’t have gotten the nerve. Then there’s my twin who really helped me with my query and synopsis. She loves that sort of thing. I’m a pantser, but I’m adjusting myself to deadlines.
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
JOY: It helps I didn’t know what to expect. If it weren’t for my sister I wouldn’t have known about DVpit. I figured I’d give it a go. I felt like it was kind of now or never with the manuscript. I was afraid I’d never send it out widely after my two rejections, but DVpit came at a perfect time in my life. I recall working on my pitches in class and setting up a pitching schedule in between breaks. It felt good to get likes on my pitches, and I suppose I had this doubt that no one would like them because I pitched all wrong. The whole experience made me want to work harder on my writing. In all it was great to see so many people with stories to tell. I felt like I was home. Corny, I know. But it’s true.
How was the experience for you, Saba?
SABA: This was my third time participating and I’d already signed Taylor Brooke from a previous round of #DVpit so I was excited to scroll through the Twitter feed, ing way more pitches than I told myself I would (because, of course, I couldn’t resist). I definitely noticed a hike in the quality of the pitches—I was thrilled to see that writers were being thoughtful about using comp titles, reflecting their understanding of how important it is to frame their stories within the context of what’s currently out there. I had a great time, and I’ll definitely be back!
Joy, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
JOY: I remember reading the DVpit site like a textbook. I wanted to get it right. Twin to the rescue, my sister helped me with my pitches. While I was getting so detailed orientated she helped realize the heart of the story. At one point she had to remind me to use shorthand and to try out the pitches on twitter and save to drafts to make sure it all fit. I feel like maybe I’m not the best to give words of wisdom, but I will say do not wait until the last moment. Work on those pitches ahead of time, like you would a paper due next week or two. And get your manuscript as ready and clean as can be! In hindsight I probably jumped the gun with my MS.
And Saba, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
SABA: Use the resources #Dvpit provides for you, and jump at the opportunity to connect with other marginalized querying writers. Other than the actual process of writing good stories, being a successful author involves being in a constant state of both gathering knowledge and building your community, and the #DVpit experience is a great first step because it gives you easy access to both in a safe, nurturing environment (and we have Beth Phelan to thank for that ).
Tell us about The Call, Joy!
JOY: Technically I got two calls! The first one was in my dorm room and I was terribly afraid that the acoustics would be bad, and my roommates would be rowdy or something crazy. Saba was so kind and encouraging about my work, and the things that got her attention, and I was over the moon when she offered me an R+R. She really wanted my story to be the best it could be, and if she wanted that for my story I knew she wanted me to be the best too.
The second call happened after I turned in the revised MS. I was so nervous. This time I was babysitting and just knew the kid would be in hysterics and somehow that would be a sign of how the call would go. That wasn’t the case at all. Saba gives THE best feedback, and I kept thinking maybe this is it? She likes it, but was it enough? Maybe she wants to tell me to keep working on my writing over the phone instead of email. But then she offered me rep and I couldn’t have answered “yes” more quickly I don’t think. I’m sure I was a bumbling mess. Long story short. I couldn’t be more lucky.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
JOY: “Genie grants wishes when she pirouettes. Now paralyzed, finding her #blackgirlmagic again is proving difficult for this 17yo. #DVpit #OWN #YA”
Saba, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
SABA: The idea of a dancer who couldn’t dance anymore, a dancer who is already intimately familiar with intersectional marginalization. I loved it—it made my mind spin (get it?) and I had to take a look at it right away!
What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?
SABA: I’m still on the lookout for high concept, timeless-feeling contemporary MG centering POC; stories that engage thoughtfully with feminism, toxic masculinity, body positivity, the immigrant experience, or better yet, all of the above!
Warm congratulations to Joy and Saba for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Joy Smith is a recent grad with a BA in Human Development and Differences. When she’s not going crazy thinking about going to Grad school for Early Childhood Deaf Education, you can find her writing YA about fly black girls, or stage dooring at Broadway shows. You can follow her on twitter @JoyJoyWrites.
Saba Sulaiman (@agentsaba) is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She is looking primarily to build her Middle Grade and Young Adult lists, and is particularly interested in contemporary realistic stories. She’s also open to category romance (all sub-genres except paranormal), literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, tightly plotted, character-driven psychological thrillers, cozy mysteries à la Agatha Christie, and memoir. Being a first generation immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues in both fiction and non-fiction with veracity and heart.